Thin-skinned corporate managers are notorious for working themselves into a lather when journalists question their ethics or skills. But the venom spewed by the chief executive officer of a Fort Lauderdale telecommunication company against New York Post columnist Christopher Byron back in 2006 was a breed apart.
Byron had dubbed GlobeTel Communications a "penny stock vampire" that should be exorcised from the capital markets, which didn't sit well with the firm's apparently humorless CEO, Timothy Huff. The executive shot back in a rambling 900-word press release that Byron was a purveyor of "journalistic pornography" who'd published "half-witted," libelous comments.
Along with his columns at the Post, Bloomberg News, New York magazine and The New York Observer that exposed the transgressions of public-company big shots, he authored six books, including the New York Times best-seller Martha Inc.: The Incredible Story of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. He also wrote biting pieces about the man who would become president of the United States. Donald Trump once said on CNN that Byron had "made a good living writing about me."
The GlobeTel story was a score for Byron, but hardly a one-off. Huff was one among many scoundrels who preyed on the investing public and later paid a price after Byron slogged through rigged financial statements and then revealed in elegant prose that a company and its management couldn't be trusted.
Let me pause to cop to to my bias about Byron. We included one another in family gatherings and tolled hours on the phone and in person debating politics, telling war stories and mourning the depression in our industry that was killing off financial investigative journalists faster than a listicle gone viral.
Byron's work helped the everyday person. When he was hired as a columnist by Bloomberg News in 2000, editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler called Byron "the closest thing to a guardian angel an investor can have."
Later in his career, when the Post declined to renew Byron's contract, the financial website NakedShorts.com said Byron's departure "will raise cheers in boiler rooms from Boca Raton to Broad Street."
Cheers, of course, because a financial journalism vigilante had lost his spot at a working person's newspaper.
Investors were winners after a Byron story effectively blacklisted a rogue. But they also were victorious because of the educational value of his work. After he did the heavy lifting of sorting out phony financials and checking up on the overblown claims in company press releases, the public was able to understand how the nefarious deeds were done. It was the foundation for Mom and Pop to recognize how to avoid the next bad guy.
A reliable measure of an effective investigative journalist is the decibel rate of his or her targets' squealing. Byron inspired a chorus of squealers.
Imagis Technologies, a Vancouver company in the facial recognition software business, sued Byron for libel in a 2002 case that was later dropped. After his story ran, his phone records were stolen in a successful attempt to get a list of his confidential sources. Byron wound up testifying before Congress about the dangers of the practice that exposed his records, known as pretexting.
At GlobeTel, management was so exercised by his coverage that they plastered flyers with Byron's photo on New York City muni-meters outside the headquarters of News Corp. (NWSA - Get Report) , which owns the Post. The flyers suggested journalism schools should make his work "a case study" in what's wrong with reporters.
Eleven months later, the American Stock Exchange said it was launching procedures to delist GlobeTel's stock, citing the firm's "pattern of issuing materially misleading and overly promotional public disclosures" and its hindering of an Amex investigation, among other things.
Byron had great fun at the expense of some of his subjects. In his hilarious book Testosterone Inc.: Tales of CEOs Gone Wild, he went into painful detail about the vanities of General Electric (GE - Get Report) CEO Jack Welch, who apparently was preoccupied with his accelerating hair loss. "A cosmetician was hired by GE to camouflage his bald spot by painting filament-fine trompe l'oeil hair follicles onto his scalp before TV appearances," Byron wrote of the corporate icon.
Another object of his journalistic affection for years was Donald Trump, whom Byron interviewed at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach for a cover story that ran in the now-defunct George magazine. Byron's observations about Trump in that story were many, but my favorite was that the two met in a huge library "with no books in it."
Byron sometimes made deliberate mischief. In an email he sent me in 2012, he recalled that he'd been reading through "an unusually lie-drenched 10K" public-company filing one day and noticed that that outrageous document had been signed "in script and by hand" by "PriceWaterhouse Coopers," the accounting firm. "So I called them up and asked to be connected to Mr. PriceWaterhouse Coopers," he said. "And I got into a huge row when they finally admitted that no such human being actually existed."
Two years ago, he visited a class in news writing that I was teaching at Connecticut's Fairfield University, and one of my students asked what it took to be a good journalist. They'd need to "make a total commitment to live, breathe and die the news," he told them.
Would he change anything in his life if he could do it over again, another student asked? "I wouldn't trade it for the world," he said. "You get paid for telling stories about other people. How cool is that?"